The latest hot trend in MLB is the supposed “death of free agency,” the offshoot of all these long-term contract extensions that are taking big names off the market in the foreseeable future. It’s not exactly a new thing. I remember writing about this in past years, as well, but such a dramatic spurt of signings this week – Justin Verlander (five-year, $140-million extension through 2019), Adam Wainwright (five years, $97.5 million through 2018), Buster Posey (eight years, $159 million through 2022), Elvis Andrus (eight years, $120 million through 2022), and Paul Goldschmidt (five years, $32 million) has put the issue back in the forefront.
That’s on top, of course, of Felix Hernandez’s new $175-million deal in February that takes him off the free-agent market until 2019. And now word comes today that Robinson Cano, the top name, by far, on next winter’s potential free-agent list, is dropping Scott Boras as his agent in favor of a company founded by Jay-Z. The rapper will be in partnership with the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a company that represents numerous high-profile ballplayers and has a reputation for getting deals done before free agency. That’s in contrast to Boras, whose M.O. is to shun extensions in order to take his players into the open market. The widespread interpretation of this switch by Cano is that he is motivated to get something done with the Yankees in advance of free agency. The upshot is that another big name will likely come off the market, leaving a pretty bereft crop of talent in free agency next year. The biggest names are Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Morneau, Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence and, from the Mariners, Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales. All are good players, but not in the range of Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, recent free agents who pushed into the $100 million or even $200 million range. Those types of bidding wars are becoming fewer and farther between. Check out this list of would-be free agents who instead signed long-term contracts: David Wright, Evan Longoria, Cole Hamels, Joey Votto, Matt Cain, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Matt Harrison, Jonathan Niese, Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero, Brandon Phillips, Starlin Castro, Adam Jones, Andre Ethier and Allen Craig.
Now, that’s not to say this trend will continue indefinitely. I’d imagine some agents of upper-tier players will see this as a market inefficiency they can exploit. In other words, if there are so few superstars in free agency, there figures to be a feeding frenzy for those that do become available among big-market teams with money to burn and holes to fill (cough Yankees cough). But the factors that led to teams locking up their players in the first place — revenue sharing and luxury tax payments to smaller market teams, increased national television revenue to everybody, mega-contracts for local television rights to some teams — is going to keep making it possible for top stars to be enticed into long-term contracts before they hit the open market.
The result is that player development will become even more paramount than ever, because it is the only guaranteed method to stock your team with top-flight talent: Draft it yourself. Yes, some of the more financially burdened or perennially rebuilding teams like the Astros, Rays and Marlins, who still may not have the ability, or desire, to lock up their superstars, will put top-level players on the market as they hit arbitration and their salaries skyrocket. We may see this later this season with Cy Young winner David Price (who could be traded to a team that would be able to lock him up, if the Rays determine they can’t meet Price’s demands). But what will those teams want in return? Top young prospects, so that’s just another reason to stress player development.
Meanwhile, MLB has acted in recent years to equalize spending in the draft and the international market, so it will be more difficult, theoretically at least, for big-market teams to dominate those avenues just by paying more for the top talent (though everyone continues to search for whatever loopholes they can find). An international draft seems inevitable. And to me, all that means that scouting will also become even more critical. With everyone having access to more or less the same amateur talent pool, it will come down to judgments, not checkbooks. Those organizations with the collective acumen to do a better job identifying talent than their competition will thrive in the long run. If I’m right, this should bode fairly well for the Mariners, whose farm system is ranked No. 2 in the major-leagues by Baseball America in terms of overall organizational talent.
That’s not to say that all the other avenues of team-building won’t be important as well, and that statistical analysis won’t continue to inform trades and signings. But while this cycle of locking up the best players continues, teams simply must develop a pipeline of top-flight talent through their farm systems. And that’s not a bad place for the industry to be.